Someone departed our guild this week because although we’re quite social, he felt that he never ended up doing stuff with other guildmembers. He wasn’t the only one to share the desire to group more and be tired of playing solo – although some of the newer members did admit that they sometimes felt too shy to speak up. Bramble, our guild leader, said the following:
I don’t think the game is particularly well structured to encourage group play, with the multiplicity of planets and the quest nodes that keep moving you further on into an area – you lose that quest hub where players bump into each other and teams naturally form up.
On reflection, I’m not sure I agree.
There are aspects of the game that don’t appear to encourage grouping – namely the phased class stories – but otherwise, I feel Bioware have made a good attempt to encourage and facilitate grouping in SWTOR. The problem, as I see it, is the same as with most other MMOs and actually lies with the players themselves.
While the planet (zone) layout does move people from quest hub to quest hub but I don’t see this as much different to many other games. In the LOTRO zone of Evendim, for example, you start in Oatbarton, head up to Tinnudir, do quests out of Ost Forod and then Tyl Ruinen. Or WoW’s Netherstorm: you start at Area 52, head up to Eco-dome Midrealm, then Stormspire and the Protectorate Watch Post. So why, in SWTOR, is this similar zone design accountable for discouraging groups?
Perhaps it’s to do with SWTORs quest-chains? With the exception of heroic quests, I don’t believe that there are any quest chains which contain a stage where a group is absolutely mandatory – something that is almost a staple of previous games. A player could start a chain of quests and complete 7 or 8 steps before suddenly hitting a point where a group is required to progress – either to complete a dungeon instance or defeat an elite mob. Great! That’s the issue! SWTOR should have learned from other games to encourage grouping with more group quest points.
But SWTOR did learn from other games. WoW eventually disposed of pretty much all group quests in the 1 to 60 levelling experience and got rid of nearly all the random Elite mobs that wondered around. LOTRO allowed players to use an Inspiration buff on some Book quests so that they could complete steps that required groups. The developers recognised that some players would always have difficulty finding groups and that blocking content from them in this way was just frustrating and annoying for the people playing their game.
So how come peoples experience of grouping in other games is so much better?
I suspect it’s a case of rose-tinted glasses. I have the fondest memories of grouping with guildmates in WoW prior to the release of Burning Crusade. Then again, there were pretty much only five of us in the guild and we were all of a similar level. There was also one tank, one healer and three DPS. So every night we ended up running dungeons or doing group quests together. It was a laugh and a very social one at that. But I’ve never had the same experience again, either in subsequent WoW expansions or other games. And the reason is not because of game design but because of level discrepancies.
I started playing LOTRO at about the same time that everybody else in my guild did (three days before official release). It didn’t take long, though, before I was limping behind and not in the same level range as everyone else. The simple but immutable fact that my gaming sessions would rarely start before 9pm while many others could start at 8pm or earlier meant that group content could be completed by people before I got on. What I ended up with was a load of incomplete quest chains that I could not finish solo and I often find myself unable to form groups from those people questing in the same area.
In many ways, my personal experience in LOTRO is identical to the feedback I’m hearing in SWTOR. I also found the same in WoW too. “Any guildies up for the daily heroic?” “Nope, sorry. Already run it.” Not just that but lots of people would run it in PUGs or use the Dungeon Finder – why wait for guildies to come online when you can easily get it done on your timescale with random strangers?
With the introduction of social points and even tailoring bits of quest dialogue to groups, Bioware has done what it can to encourage players to get together while recognising that it’s not fun for players to spend time blocked from quest content simply because they need a group. Companions also mean that some group content can occasionally be completed by fewer players than required (although they won’t properly replace human players. Well, not all of them anyway.) But this is a double-edged blade as players can also level quickly, leading to greater level discrepancy, especially in a relatively small guild like ours. You can’t get 4 mid-30 level players together for a group if there aren’t 4 in the guild at all.
Problems with grouping are always going to exist in games that have experience levels. SWTOR’s PvP warzones are great because of the Bolster mechanic that lets any level (except for 50s of course) group and play together. Pre-CU SWG was fantastic because grouping could happen no matter what your skill set or level (especially with player-to-player training so you never had to return to a skill trainer). Perhaps a simple solution (in theory if not in execution) would be to have some similar mechanism in place that matches player levels when running a flashpoint (like Sidekicking in CoX) so that high level players could make up numbers and help out lower level characters without being all but invulnerable. (I’m always very grateful to players who come and run content far below their level with us but I have to admit it’s not desirable owing to the absolute lack of challenge. You don’t get the same buzz standing behind a player who can’t be damaged while he facerolls everything in sight as you do when you’re tank’s dead, your healers OOM and you’re down to your last 100 hit points – it’s either you or the boss and all you need is one lucky crit and… yeah, well, you get the picture.)
But without massive code changes, the only way players can regularly group together is, obviously, by making an effort to play together and level together. Or, to put it another way, form a static group. It’s something I’m doing with my junior Jedi Guardian – he’s only being levelled when my friend is online and in the mood to play her Sage. Similarly, on monday nights we have many players who get together to play their Imperial alts and are, so far, all staying at a similar level – so all flashpoints and heroics are getting done together in (several) guild groups (except by me, of course, because they start the ball rolling at 7pm and some of us are only just back from work at that point! ;D ) It goes to show that when people put their minds to it and when they make a conscious effort to do so, grouping is more than possible and the game happily supports and rewards it.
One final note: much has been said about SWTORs lack of global LFG channel or Dungeon Finder tool but, as evidenced by the same problems that exist in other games where these features have been implemented, they are hardly the panacea for grouping issues. Of course, having them at all is going to be more helpful than not having them.